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House Passes Bush Tax Cut, Vote Falls Along Party Lines

By Glenn Kessler and Juliet Eilperin

The House voted narrowly Thursday for an across-the-board reduction in Americans’ income taxes, giving President Bush his first legislative victory on the centerpiece of his tax-cut program but exposing bitter partisan divisions that may hamper final approval of the $1.6 trillion package.

The bill, which was approved by a vote of 230 to 198, would cut income tax rates and shrink the number of tax brackets from five to four. Over 10 years, it would reduce government revenues by nearly $1 trillion, with a retroactive provision providing $5.6 billion of tax relief in the current fiscal year.

Ten Democrats and one independent joined every Republican in the chamber to support the proposal. But most of the Democrats were conservative Southerners who often vote with the Republicans, suggesting that despite Bush’s aggressive championing of bipartisanship since taking office, he has failed to attract many members of the minority party to one of the central components of his economic program.

Indeed, the battle lines may have hardened as the tax debate moves to the evenly divided Senate. Republicans and Democrats agree that the president has yet to secure a majority in support of the president’s package in the chamber.

Thursday, however, House Republicans appeared determined to demonstrate that momentum behind Bush’s program was building.

The bill was passed by the House Ways and Means Committee last week with little debate despite Democratic complaints that budget had not yet been crafted and the tax cut was too large. Thursday, House GOP leaders held a victory rally, complete with balloons and the Beatles’ tune “Taxman,” more than four hours before the final vote so that they could make the evening news in time. The Republican leadership also arranged to hold a conference call with the president after the vote.

“I’m glad we moved it the way we did,” Bush told House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) by telephone from Fargo, N.D., where he was campaigning for the tax cut. “It’s a strong message to the American people that the members of the U.S. Congress have heard loud and clear that if we set priorities and watch our spending habits that we can send some meaningful money back to the people.”

Democrats have struggled to find their footing in the wake of losing control of the White House. But Thursday they mostly hung together, joined by anger at the Republican dominance of the House process and genuine dismay at the size of the tax cut plan.

Democrats fumed that the president, for all his efforts to meet with lawmakers and expressions of bipartisanship, has shown little interest in seeking common ground.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) bemoaned the lack of cooperation, arguing that lawmakers could have reached “an honest compromise” on the tax legislation if they only had a chance to negotiate. “This tax cut bill, coming without a budget, is another ‘my way or the highway’ approach to legislating in this Congress,” Gephardt said.

Earlier Gephardt told reporters that Bush had failed to make good on his promise to change the tone in Washington. “My assessment after just a few weeks of this Congress is that bipartisanship is over,” he said.